Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by infection with the TB bacteria (germ). It is caught by breathing the bacteria into the lungs. TB is usually not highly contagious, but the infection is caught simply by breathing the same air as someone with the disease in his or her lungs. Although TB is uncommon in Australia, it has not been eradicated as many people believe, and is still a very large health problem in other parts of the world.
TB infection can remain dormant in a person's lungs for years, and in this situation the person remains well and cannot give the infection to anyone else. However, it can occasionally be important to diagnose and treat this dormant infection so as to prevent TB disease in the future. TB infection is usually diagnosed with a Mantoux skin test.
Most people who are infected with TB do not develop disease. When the infection does cause disease (tuberculosis), it most commonly involves the lung, but can also involve many other parts of the body. It is often a slow and initially mild illness, but if left untreated can be very serious. The disease is diagnosed by growing the bacteria (germ) from samples taken from the affected area e.g. a phlegm sample.
Treatment is with specialized antibiotics, and is highly effective. Because TB is an unusual disease in Australia, and can be complicated, it should always be treated by a doctor who specializes in TB. People with TB are usually also helped by specialist community nurses, who assist with the supply of medication and ensure the treatment is completed satisfactorily. With this help, cure rates are better than 95%.